A place in the city. London real estate can take first price for Shakespeare’s greatest subject –deception. On site for a restoration project I was looking for a place to stay. As I penetrated one marvelous facade after another I discovered suicidal claustrophobia in the unmanageable boxiness of the rooms. The invariable nightmare of the “lower ground” floor in which a so—called kitchen and dining room had been wedged together in the dankness, an interior suitable for a beheading. Something spacious and airy would take a year to find. I was about to go to Paris -“Whats wrong with Paris?” Clive asks, “it’s just a skip and a jump to London and you’ll have a view of Notre Dame.” – when I was offered a place, love you friends. “You’ll love it, being a mystery buff and all, and it is a lovely small cottage, just as you like it”, Angela cooed. Well, yes I do, provided they come with 90% less clutter than the ones I had been looking at.
The exterior was a cheerful mishmash of wood, stone, shingles, and leaded windows-all different sizes, one leading to a diminutive wrought-iron balcony. On the side a blue plaque asserting that Dame Agatha had lived here. Undeniable charm. I entered with some hesitation but what a surprise the place had been beautifully updated.
The house had a history. Designed as a “picturesque” mews in the 1880’s, consisting of stabling and a tiny apartment, it had been bought and converted to a cottage by the author in 1929 with the proceeds from the novel that brought her fame, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. “It was a bit of a barnyard,” confided the host. “The dear old thing apparently kept geese in the living room.”
Thanks to high ceilings and skylights installed during one of the re-models the place was not claustrophobic. I loved the top floor aerie under the eaves where, gazing out over the venerable hodgepodge of London houses I could imagine how the Queen of Crime had been able to people her pages so vividly. Everything was perfect I could move in immediately with Agatha’s ghost.
Sitting in the top floor aerie I saw tourists with their cameras at the ready snapping away at the blue plaque with the excitement of Livingstone discovering Victoria Falls. I could see myself becoming preoccupied with the Christie Crusaders, neglecting my project, enjoying being the keeper of the shrine, the tenant of . . . history.
A few days after I had moved in I spent less and less time there. Why, the agreement allowed me to be there. I really did not know why this house – the recipient of so much care and imagination, the embodiment of this visitors “perfect house in the city”-had remained so…alien. Or perhaps something else-Agatha’s ghost.
A ghost is something about a place that never lets you say, “This is mine.” No, it belongs to someone else. I don’t know who.
I wish I could have called Agatha back to ask how she felt about the cottage. I was told she went on to many other, grander houses. But she never sold this one. Why? What hold did it have over her? What secret? Why did her widower, the archaeologist Sir Mallowan, choose after her death to live out his last months in the cottage? Is it because ghosts, like geese, need to be kept?